I met Shlomo Gazit, a former Head of Israeli Military Intelligence (1974-1978) last summer in Kfar Saba, during Israel's War with Hamas in Gaza , as sirens of incoming missiles sounded in the Greater Tel-Aviv area.
Although we no doubt could have spoken about the war with Hamas that was going on at the time, I wanted to take a break from this war in order to talk about a different war. I had come to ask Gazit, age 88, about the Six Day War. Gazit had served as the head of the assessment department in the IDF intelligence before the Six Day War, but then took leave to study for a master's degree in history. However to his surprise, Gazit's studies were interrupted in the summer of 1967, when he was appointed by then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to be in charge of the West Bank territories Israeli troops had just captured.
Interestingly, Gazit explained that Israel had not planned to rule well over a half-million Arabs. "Even the operational order for war issued on June 4, 1967 - which clearly defined the mission of capturing the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip - made no mention of the need to establish a military government," he wrote in his book The Carrot and the Stick; Israel's Policy in Judea and Samaria, 1967-1968. As a result, there was much improvisation, and decisions were made at times due to the exigencies of the moment. Gazit told me something that I had never heard before, which was when the Old City of Jerusalem fell into Israeli hands in 1967, Israel discovered that the Jordanians, "had placed a urinal against the Western Wall," knowing full well it was Judaism's most holy site. As Gazit wrote in his book, Israeli anger over this seems to have led to the clearing of a large plaza, (which exists today), quite contrary to international law.
Turning to the 67 war, Gazit said that Israeli military intelligence had not expected a war to break out that year."Our assumption at the time was if there would be a war it would be in a couple of years only after the Egyptians removed all their forces out of Yemen, which was involved in a civil war and we knew from their point of view they were really not prepared."
He continued, "It all started I would say almost by mistake.We had some air fights with the Syrian air force and our pilots downed I don’t remember how many Syrian planes and the Soviets at the time were afraid that Israel was going to attack Syria, take and occupy Damascus and change the whole Soviet position in the Middle East."
Gazit explained that "The Soviets decided to repeat something that happened five years earlier when the Egyptians moved forces into Sinai, and we mobilized forces.The crisis lasted a couple of weeks and then it all calmed down and we had quiet years up to 1967. " According to Gazit, the Russians told the Egyptians [incorrectly] that Israel "was concentrating forces in order to start a war against the Syrians. So the Egyptians mobilized their forces and moved them to Sinai and that is how it all started.Nobody really planned it."
Gazit said that Israel started the war with a pre-emptive strike on June 5, 1967 for two purposes. The first was "to reopen the naval passage thru Sharm El Sheik to Eilat which the Egyptians blocked all through the crisis" ".The second purpose "was to remove the Egyptian forces or to force them to move back to the west of the Suez canal."
As he said, "Our expectation was that we would have the war only with Egypt.We did not want a war with anyone else. We even sent a warning to King Hussein not to get involved,[saying] it’s none of his business. And the war started with an air strike and we literally destroyed completely the Egyptian air force.However it didn’t stop there. Two Egyptian battalion commanders that were at the time in Jordan, in what we call now the West bank, started to open fire and to try to force the Jordanian forces to get into the war [and]especially in Jerusalem. " King Hussein couldn't resist becoming involved as he feared the passions of the Arab street . The Syrians also entered the war and " and within a few hours we found ourselves in a war against the whole Arab Middle East. "
I asked Gazit about the fateful role of Moshe Dayan, who in a time of great uncertainty and fear returned to public office in then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol's government and was appointed as Minister of Defense soon before the war broke out. Gazit responded, "The role Dayan had was giving the push to the Israeli Government to start the war."
Gazit then paused and concluded," I am not sure if the [Israeli] government would have had the courage to make the decision of starting the war [in a pre-emptive strike] on June 5, 1967 without Dayan,"
[Editor's note: Dayan had said at a cabinet meeting before the war that Israel had to accept the Egyptian blockade of the Straits of Tiran as a fait accompli or strike the Egyptians at once. Dayan had warned, "God help us if they hit us first. Not only do we lose our first strike capability...but we'll have to fight the war according to their plan..and on territory vital to us." ]
Although Gazit didn't mention this, it would appear that one of the factors Dayan considered in favouring an Israeli strike was the fear that Egypt might destroy the Dimona nuclear reactor if Eshkol's government continued to dither over whether to embark on war (This was written about in 2010 by Ha'aretz with the declassification of minutes of a June 1967 meeting of ministers and army generals.)
On the subject of Dayan, Gazit added, "I don’t think Dayan should be given any credit either in the planning [of the Six Day War]or the operation of the defense forces unless you go back to the period before his retirement as the Chief of Staff. Because Dayan had changed the whole character of the Israeli Defense Forces after the war of independence.
According to Gazit, The IDF during the War of Independence and before the period of Dayan as Chief of Staff, and afterward were" two completely different forces." Dayan had improved and upgraded it substantially. "In fact the IDF today is the offspring of Dayan from the 1950's," Gazit noted.
I had earlier in 2007 heard Gazit give a lecture about the Six Day War and remember him also saying that, one of the factors that ultimately led to the Six Day War was Israel’s “building of the national water carrier.” This sent water to the north and south and “made the Arabs realize that Israel had an economic basis to exist, such that they began thinking about preparing for war."
Upon his retirement from the IDF, Gazit served as President of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev for two four-year terms. Since 1988 he has been a member of the staff of Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
In our interview last summer, I had commented to Gazit that his memory was excellent and he looked well at age 88. He replied, "It's not true. It's just camouflauge."
GAZIT 'S VIEW ON PALESTINIAN REFUSAL TO RECOGNIZE ISRAEL AS A JEWISH STATE
Gazit has a weekly column in Hebrew and in his column 'Live in the Absence of Peace" dated March 8 2014 (translated into English by Dr. Aaron Lerner of IMRA) he has asked what is the explanation for the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state ? Gazit believes that the principal and real reason is that the Palestinians have not lost hope that Israel will perish and disappear in the future. "As Arafat said in a conversation with met, “do not deny me the right to dream. Just as the Jews
pray “Next year in Jerusalem”, the Palestinians have the right to dream of Haifa, Jaffa and Beersheba.”
Gazit also wrote " Abbas today represents only one component of all the Palestinian people. He does not represent the residents of the Gaza Strip and does not represent the refugees in the diaspora. Even in the West Bank he only represents the Fatah movement. The voicing of such a public declaration, and in Arabic, would be like declaring a death sentence on himself."
PM Begin had a practice of engaging in mental gymnastics ("pilpul") to
explain what he agreed to in the course of negotiations with Egypt. The
question from a operative standpoint is the extent that these finely crafted
explanations are either understood and remembered.
Gen. ( res. ) Shlomo Gazit attended the Cabinet meeting that was held when
PM Menachem Begin returned from Camp David.
At the meetings, Minister of Transport Haim Landau asked PM Begin how he
agreed that Israel would sign a document in which Israel recognized "the
legitimate rights of the Palestinian people."
In his column this week, Gazit shared PM Begin's reply:
"We had with us at Camp David an expert of international law, one of the
best and finest in the world [AL: Barak]....And what did this great expert
in international law tell me?
He said: Mr. Prime Minister, yourself are an attorney. Would it be
conceivable to you not to recognize the "legitimate" rights? What is the
meaning of the word "legitimate"? Yes, simply "legal" rights. And is it
conceivable not to recognize legal rights? The dispute between us and the
Palestinians is on their demand for rights that are not legitimate.'"
Gen. ( res. ) Shlomo Gazit - IMRA translation of an excerpt from his weekly
column - Camp David Conference 30 March 2014